More on the California science standards

By Rick Skeean
October 8, 1998

Regarding the article by Jennifer Kerr on the California science standards, I realize why Mr. Milloy came out in favor of the "hands on " approach to teaching as portrayed in the article. Kerr's article is a well-done piece of educationist propaganda, possibly including the reporter herself as an active participant and not just an unwitting dupe.

Who could possibly be opposed to the use of a dramatic and graphic demonstration as an aid to learning? Mr. Milloy's sympathies would naturally lie with those doing "real science", as opposed to arrogant theoreticians who refuse to take the trouble to check their theories by doing experiments. The only problem with this is that such a characterization of Dr. Seaborg is slander. He has been an active, working scientist for much of his illustrious career. Furthermore, I doubt very much that he or the faction he represents would have any objection to the use of a well-planned demonstration or hands-on experiment to help students learn science.

The real battle is not between hands on learning as opposed to book learning; it is over whether students are to learn anything meaningful at all. The proponents of "discovery learning" hold that children only learn that which they discover for themselves. In the name of that theory, they are willing to sacrifice large chunks of valuable classroom time by giving students a pile of materials, a minimum of vague directions, and an injunction to "make observations". Often, the teacher has only a feeble grasp of the concepts to be explored, and in any case, is warned not to unduly influence the process by telling the students what they are looking for. In addition, the students are compelled to work in groups, with the inevitable consequence that any learning that is accomplished is done only by the brighter, more eager students. At the end of the process, in order not to harm the fragile self esteem of the students, grading of the learning achieved is done by "authentic" processes that allow everyone to demonstrate his or her knowledge in ways other than answering explicit questions involving conceptual understanding on a written test.

The major problem with discovery learning is that it ignores the fact that the brightest minds humanity has generated took centuries to uncover the structure of modern science. There is no way that even the brightest, most motivated students can recapitulate that experience in twelve years of school. Learning science inevitably involves the learning of large numbers of facts, some of them quite difficult to grasp without lots of explanation.

Frequent demonstrations and experiments to bring those facts to life are essential in teaching science, and nobody is suggesting otherwise. The opponents to the standards proposed by the committee are raising a straw man. The real issue is that the standards raise the expectations of what the students are capable of learning to a high, but very realistic level. In order to meet those expectations, teachers will have to learn the material themselves, and then be prepared to ask the students to do some real work. They then have to be prepared to make judgements that will clearly separate the students by ability and effort. These things are what they are terrified of.

In a well intentioned, but, I believe, misguided effort to bring more minorities and women into science, professional organizations such as the ACS have fallen into the camp of the educrats, but they do not speak for all their members. I have taken a look at the standards proposed by the committee and do not find them at all unreasonable for the vast majority of students, given a reasonable effort on their and their teachers' parts.

Imagine what basketball would be like, if kids were given a ball and sent out on the court and allowed to "discover" the game for themselves. After some time, some of the kids will figure out that the object is to put the ball through the hoop. However, someone notices that not all kids can accomplish that, so the hoop is lowered to three feet. Kids who don't feel like throwing the ball through the hoop are allowed to wander around the court and watch the others. At the end, everyone is given a prize for participating. Would you pay to watch that?

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